Brown had been part of the music scene for some time, playing with Opensouls and Anika Moa, collaborating with Anna Coddington, and playing in Fredericks Brown with Deva Mahal in New York. Lips went on to release three EPs and one LP, I Don’t Know Why I Do Anything (2021) though the project went through many changes, gradually changing from a solo project to an established band.
Steph Brown started playing piano at the age of seven. She had the same piano teacher until she was 15, Edna Alexander, who lived across the road. One day the teacher’s sister answered the door and told her she’d passed away. The teacher left her piano to Brown’s mum; Brown still has that piano.
“I started learning piano when I was seven and I think around 11 I wrote my first composition,” Brown told Under the Radar. “The joy that came from pulling a piece of music out of me was so great, it was indescribable. I played my little song over and over again and I’ve made music ever since.”
She went on to complete a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Performance at the University of Auckland. It was there she met Jeremy Toy (She’s So Rad, Leonard Charles) who asked if she would join Opensouls. He later produced her early Lips EPs, Look, Listen (2012) and Ghosts and Demons (2013).
“2000 was the first year that the degree existed so my class was the first graduating class,” says Brown. “The best thing about jazz school for me was my piano teacher Kevin Field. He is an incredible piano player and he taught me all this crunchy jazz harmony which I just absolutely love. He also recommended me for my first professional gig, playing keys for Anika Moa.”
Brown’s first show with Anika Moa was an Australian tour, opening for American singer Chris Isaak. “It was my first taste of working as a professional musician and I was sold!! It was a few years before I got another gig like that one.”
The other great thing about jazz school was meeting Jeremy Toy, says Brown.
“Even as a student Jeremy was always pushing the boundary. He could play traditional jazz but was interested in how jazz sat in contemporary music too, especially hip hop. Jeremy started a band called Fifth Floor with Julien Dyne, Bjorn Petersen, I think Dominic Hoey was in it too.
“Eventually that morphed into Opensouls and Jeremy asked if I’d join the band. Opensouls was a nine-piece hip hop band, and I loved playing in it. We also had a vintage funk iteration called the Tyra and the Tornadoes (with vocalist Tyra Hammond) that was the same band, we just played songs from old funk 45s that Scott Towers (Fat Freddy’s Drop) and Julien Dyne would dig up. We played a lot at the Rising Sun on K Rd. Those gigs were so much fun, full of joy. I felt like I had a little music family and it really broke my heart to leave the band when I moved to New York.”
Things had been going well in Auckland, but Brown felt she needed a change. “I moved in 2007 for a change of scene. I had been working as a freelance keyboard player in Auckland for around five years but I could see myself doing the same thing for the next 30 years, and I really wanted to try my hand as a songwriter most of all. I needed to change something to make that happen, so I moved.”
During her time in New York, she played with the Fredericks Brown band alongside vocalist Deva Mahal, daughter of blues legend Taj Mahal.
Brown also met Rochelle Bright, a playwright who was about to move back to New Zealand. A mutual friend introduced them as Brown wanted to get into musical theatre, and Bright had just finished studying for a master’s degree at New York University. They stayed in touch, which would lead Bright to contact Brown a few years down the track to ask if she’d do the music for the play Daffodils.
After a few years in New York, Brown started her solo project, recording demos that would sow the seeds for what would eventually grow into a fully-fledged band.
“Lips started in 2010 in my Brooklyn apartment, at first it was just me making demos. I never planned to sing them myself but my roommate Dan Ward convinced me to sing them, that lo-fi bedroom producer thing was quite popular around then.”
A new project involved the creation of the Lips character, a girl with a giant pair of Lips for a head.
Brown started out with solo recordings, making sparse pop on a Casio keyboard and using a Discman to provide the backing tracks.
Part of this new project involved the creation of the Lips character, a girl with a giant pair of Lips for a head, as she later told Under The Radar in 2012:
“I really wanted to create a character that would personify my music – that would be the face of my music. Particularly important for me was to make a character that acknowledged the fact that I’m a girl writing, producing, and performing my music in an industry that is particularly male dominated. So Lips, this girl who is a giant lips on legs, represented that for me.”
The very first Lips head was made by her friend Natalie Marchant in New York. “We used that in the video ‘One not Two’. We left it with some friends over in Tucson Arizona when we moved back to New Zealand. Then my mum made the second Lips head that we used in some photos. The most recent Lips head was made by local puppeteer Paul Lewis.”
In October 2010, Brown released her first Lips EP, Lips Songs. Not long after that, she met producer/multi-instrumentalist and future partner Fen Ikner (Calexico, Giant Sand), and Lips became a duo. On Ikner’s first night in New York, his band Seashell Radio was on the same bill. When Brown saw his performance skills she asked him to join the band and gradually began bringing other musicians together.
“It took me a little while to figure out what kind of live show I wanted Lips to be. I had never sung live before and it really scared me. I started performing in 2010 and I played with a few different musicians; one version of Lips was with Dan Ward (Sneaks, Cate Le Bon) on drums and Justyn Pilbrow (Elemeno P) on bass, that was really fun.
“But then I thought maybe I wanted to be an electronic act and went solo. The solo shows were pretty terrible but I got loads of experience bombing and slowly I got less afraid and a little bit more confident. I played a show at Spike Hill in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2012 and that’s where I met Fen, his band was playing on the same bill. Fen was drumming and triggering samples and singing, multi-tasking to the extreme and killing it, so I asked him to join the band and that's when Lips became a two-piece.”
‘Everything To Me’ won the APRA Silver Scroll Award.
2012 turned out to be a big year for Lips. The second EP Look, Listen was released, and ‘Everything To Me’ won the APRA Silver Scroll. The track was a wonderful laidback indie pop tune with an amazingly catchy chorus. It would eventually accumulate over 3.5 million streams on Spotify.
The year after, Brown and Ikner released the Ghosts and Demons EP, including tracks that are still included in their sets today, such as ‘Nightcall’ and ‘Ghosts and Demons.’
The next part of the Lips story took a slightly different turn, with playwright Rochelle Bright’s Daffodils – a musical theatre show based on the story of how Bright’s parents met. The show was soundtracked with cover versions of well-known New Zealand songs, arranged and performed by Lips.
For the next few years Lips’ musical output was almost fully taken up with the Daffodils project. Initially planned for just a two-week run, the play toured from 2014 to 2016. It was adapted into a film, with Lips working on it until late 2018. Songs in the show included ‘Language’ by Dave Dobbyn, ‘Bliss’ by Th’ Dudes, ‘Drive’ by Bic Runga, ‘Anchor Me’ by The Mutton Birds, and ‘Jesus I Was Evil’ by Darcy Clay. Daffodils toured around New Zealand and went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2016.
“Touring the Daffodils show was so much fun. It was a different form of touring. Normally with music you are only somewhere for one night and then you move on to the next place, but with Daffodils we were able to post up in a place for almost a week and so I felt like I really got to know the places we visited. Edinburgh was the most fun! We were there for a month, performing every day and I got to see so much incredible theatre. I would go back in a heartbeat.”
Nine years after Brown’s move to New York, she and Ikner moved back to New Zealand. A month after they arrived their first son was born, and soon they were busy working as musical directors for the Daffodils film.
In 2019 the Daffodils film was released, with a soundtrack by Lips and with Kimbra singing on many of the tracks. The track list included original songs by Lips – ‘Silent Treatment’ and ‘What The Hell?’ Lips also released a stand-alone single, ‘Guilty Talk’ mixed by Kody Nielson.
After returning to New Zealand, Lips became a four-piece band, with the addition of Maude Morris on guitars and synths and Ruby Walsh on bass.
“We persevered as a two-piece for a long time. I played bass synth, rhythm synth and lead synth, and Fen played drums, samples, synth and we both sang – we could pull it off, but I didn't have the brain bandwidth to be able to do all that as well as perform, so I had a hard time connecting with the audience. After moving back to New Zealand in 2016 we started thinking about adding members. We met Ruby first and she made the band sound so much fuller and tighter (and took the pressure off us), but the sound still felt thin. Not too much later we asked Maude to join the band and that's when our band really clicked and we became what we are now.”
The Covid-19 lockdowns allowed them to finish their long-awaited debut album, I Don’t Know Why I Do Anything (2021). The mix of styles and narratives across the songs made it feel like a concept album, or a film soundtrack woven from different people’s stories.
To promote the album, Brown took her band on tour in 2021, playing shows in Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill, and Auckland. By this stage, Lips’ music was a mix of indie pop/rock, with some singing, some yelling (’Your Deodorant Doesn’t Work’), jazzy synth solos, tight grooves and a solid rhythm section.
The ongoing strength of Lips’ music is reflected by the fact that the group was nominated for the Taite Music Prize in 2022. While Brown might have started the project with low key ambitions, the group has now been going for over a decade and provides a great outlet for her myriad talents as a keyboard player and songwriter.
Steph Brown - vocals, synth, keyboards
Fen Ikner - drums, vocals
Ruby Walsh - bass, vocals
Maude Morris - guitar, synth, vocals